Dishes. Unsurmountable dirty dishes. Dirty dishes never seem to end, but pile up in the sink day after day in the sink. Sometimes, to avoid these troublesome things, I used napkins, plastic and even pizza tops to eat from instead. Since my arrival in Delhi, dishes are no longer my arch enemy. Thanks to Sarita and Laxmi, I am no longer scared of dishes or any household chores. Sarita and Laxmi both work at my house. Sarita cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She also washes all of our dishes. Meanwhile, Laxmi cleans the flat.
In Delhi, unlike in the United States, domestic help is extremely affordable. In almost all of the houses where I have lived in Delhi, domestic help had been hired to work. The shared costs of domestic help can range from around twenty to thirty dollars a month. It is considered a necessity, not a luxury, to have domestic help. Without having to worry about household chores, I find myself with an abundance of time and energy to think of other activities hassle-free.
All of this does not come without a cost. The cost is borne by these young women and men serving as the domestic help. While the actual product of their labor is appreciated, the domestic help is often seen less than the other people due to the disproportionate power dynamics. Often, domestic help work in more than household to make a living for themselves as the salary given to them by one house is often insufficient for them to sustain themselves and their families. Domestic help often work very long hours in hostile conditions to make this livelihood. Sarita, for example, cooked in more than four households breakfast starting from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is able to cook for herself after returning home at 1 p.m.
Severe physical, emotional, and even sexual abuses takes places against domestic help.  I have personally observed where the domestic help is not allowed to even to sit on the same chairs as the owners as they are seen as less than the employer. The caste system plays a substantive role in this discrimination. Traditionally, one was only limited to jobs based on one’s caste. Though, the Indian Constitution explicitly prohibits caste-based discrimination and has reservations exist to help eradicate caste-based barriers, this type of discrimination continues to exist in practice.  For example, menial jobs such as sewage cleaning are specifically reserved for lower castes where they are not even given gloves to remove waste.  As explained by my peers, these tasks, including domestic help, sewage and toilet cleaning, among others, are specifically reserved for people of the lowest caste.
While migrants from villages and other countries are increasingly taking jobs as domestic help, domestic help are generally still of lower-caste, especially in small towns. It can be appalling to see that this type of system continues to exist, but what is really frustrating is the way domestic help is treated by peers who are my own age. While explicit discrimination is rare in cities like New Delhi, minor-transgressions against domestic help continue to take place because they are not seen as simply as employees who are paid for their services, but as people of almost lower caste. For example, domestic help is hardly given any days off. In my own household, it became a contentious issue to suggest giving the domestic help two days off a week. It is rare to give domestic help regular holidays, and if a person takes off days during the month, then it seen as grounds for termination of employment.
Additionally, domestic help’s interaction with members of the household is severely limited. An instance that comes to the forefront is my friend, Anjali’s* experience of interacting with the office’s domestic help. At Anjali’s office, the domestic help, Aunty, is responsible for making chai, cleaning, and generally maintaining the office. Anjali became close with Aunty, and they began to regularly have lunch together. The office staff was outraged by this behavior. This interaction between Anjali and Aunty became an issue of constant tension in the office because it was considered an insult that an office worker would eat with the help. Aunty also refused to even allowed to sit on the same office chairs as the other people because if she had sat in those chairs, then she would be further chastised. While I appreciate domestic help at such affordable prices to help me get away from household chores, especially dishes, treating individuals as subhuman merely because they serve as the domestic help, is not worth the cheap cost.
Not all work environments can be as discriminatory as there are instances where employers actually pay for their domestic help’s children’s education and treat them as family members. It is difficult to come up with a solution to solve the daily issues that domestic help face. While unionization has helped many sectors get rights, with the abundance of cheap unskilled labor, it will take some time before domestic help can gain the leverage to achieve the same rights as other sectors.
- Delhi: Teenage domestic help sexually assaulted by employer, The Hindustan Times, February 9, 2017, available at http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/delhi-teenage-domestic-help-sexually-assaulted-by-employer/story-ogdUd6djNMfdak9WgjtHvJ. Domestic help raped, NDTV, html; http://www.ndtv.com/topic/domestic-help-raped
- Selected articles of the Indian Constitution, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/India994-15.htm
- India untoucables still being forced to collect waste by hand, Time, available at http://time.com/3172895/dalits-sewage-untouchables-hrs-human-waste-india-caste/